Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Are We Selling Our Music Short In Our Effort To Work?

Several years ago, after I had recorded my first CD, Sam I Am with Criss Cross Records, Gerry Teekens, the label’s founder and producer, asked me if I had given any thought to what I’d like to do for the next record. I told him that I’d like to record with the same musicians, and hopefully, do a better job on the next one. Well, his answer is what you'd expect to get from most labels, club owners, and promoters: “You recorded with them the last time, we need something new for the next one."

It ‘s understandable from a business perspective why one would take this position. If your project has a different name and/or members, it’s seen as something new and fresh, and hopefully, easier to sell than if it’s just a repeat of the last one. My issue with this, however, is whether or not buying into this way of dealing with our music hurts us artistically.

I call it the Post-Dave-Douglas Syndrome (PDDS)--where we feel we have to have to invent a new band concept every time we want to make a CD or be booked on a festival. In all fairness to Dave, he’s just doing his thing, and I’m sure it’s all very sincere. Not to mention, I’m singling him out because he’s been the most successful at doing this. For good reason, mind you.

Dave is a product of the Downtown musical culture, where many of its musicians often played at places like The Knitting Factory, Tonic, and The Stone, often working with many groups and configurations. And I think the premise of this jack-of-all-bands approach was quite innocent in the beginning.

Imagine this: It’s a Wednesday night, and you write four or five new compositions to be performed during an hour-long set at one of the aforementioned venues. At the end of the gig, you and your band might make a hundred dollars and enjoy a few free beers. To add to this experience, you figure why not give the group some ironic name like The Running Still Funktet, John Doe's Organized Chaos, or my favorite, The Silent Noise Trio. And if you’re an active player on this scene, playing these venues regularly, in couple of years you could easily have three or four bands.

Of course, a gig is a gig. And as Billy Higgins said, “Get to the bandstand anyway you can.” But I figure there has to be more to it than this. It can’t all be about our “bookability” and developing new angles for promoting ourselves.

If you’re a composer, always writing for and working with a different project comes with the territory. There’s a kind of finality to a concert giving by a composer. The music is often more involved, and usually requires more of a commitment from the musicians who are hired to play it. And sometimes the music is a result of a commissioning or grant—with the exception of the big band. But I’m mainly speaking about small groups that are more improvisational and band oriented--what most of us do.

Some of the best work has come from those who have made a commitment to a group or a sound, and really explored it to the fullest. Miles, Ornette, Coltrane—they’re all great examples of this. Imagine if after a making A Love Supreme, Trane put together a Brazilian project, and then a Latin jazz project, just to make himself more bookable. We would have missed out on a lot of great music.

I started thinking about this more and more after noticing how people responded when I told them that I was working on my third solo CD. The most common responses were: “ Didn’t you just do one?” And my favorite: “Another one?” And I do understand where they are coming from.

A solo CD is usually looked at as one of these momentous things you do once in a lifetime--sort of like climbing Mount Everest. Half the fun is being able to say that you did it. And once you do, you have something interesting to talk about at parties.

And solo saxophone, mind you, is even more of a novelty. There are a few exceptions, like Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, John Butcher, and Evan Parker, who have released large bodies of work playing in the unaccompanied format. But it’s not a musical path followed by many.

However, I do feel there’s a growing trend amongst musicians of not being committed to a single sound or musical vision. The focus is often times on finding a new project to promote or market, rather being solely focused on improving ones current one. The way that I see it is like this: Even if a couple of albums don't turn out as we'd hoped. That may only mean that it’s time to go deeper, not that you need to change your musical trajectory. I understand if it’s just not working out or if you feel that the music has run its course. Then yes, you must move on. I’ve done that myself.

We shouldn’t let one or two recordings define who we are as artists. And definitely should not cow tow to promoters, club owners, agents, only thinking about our bookability. We’ve already tried that. Musical cultures tend to flourish more when the music is actually put first, and not its commercial viability.

When we’re long gone, we want people to see our extensive discography and say, “Oh yeah, now I see what this guy was about.” Those one or two horrible CDs might become historical in that they will be seen as transitional CDs that enabled you to get to that one really great one. Look how many recordings Miles Davis made before he got to Kind of Blue.

You dig!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Music of Monk: The Soprano Player's Right of Passage

As saxophonists, we often find ourselves having to deal with the music of certain players as a way of addressing certain sound and technical issues. Alto players have to deal with Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker; tenor players, Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, and with soprano players, it's Steve Lacy and Thelonious Monk.

Lacy described Monk's music as ideal for the soprano saxophone: ''Not too high, not too low, not easy, not at all overplayed and most of all, full of interesting technical problems.''

This would explain why he spent a large portion of his 50 year career exploring Monk's music. Even though Lacy only performed with him for a few years, his impact was everlasting.

Following Lacy's lead, I took the daring leap and made Monk's music the focus of my first solo CD, Monk Abstractions. While recording this CD, I sometimes had to nudge msyelf just to take a solo. Just playing the melody of one of Monk's tunes felt like a statement within itself.

Upon hearing my recording, producer and trumpeter Don Sickler asked me to perform as a part of the Thelonious Monk 90th Birthday Celebration at the Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom. It was very exciting to play for that many people, not to mention conversing with my comedic hero, Bill Cosby.

Here's a clip from that memorable evening.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Roscoe Mitchell:Master of the Avant Garde

It's been a while since I've posted anything by Roscoe Mitchell. Roscoe is one of the players that I've gotten into in more recent years, along with Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill. He's one of the true masters of the sonic/soundscape approach to improvisation.

Free players can sometimes sound cliche-ish within that vernacular. Roscoe, however, has something unique. His ability to build solos, creating this slow burning, gradually rising, sonic boil, sets him apart from other free players. It's one thing to play flurries of notes, interspersing multi-phonics between the cracks. But it's another to be able to sustain the interest of the listener for the entirety of your solo.

Personally, I have not mastered that as of yet. As a matter of fact, my solos tend to be more on the shorter side since I have not figured out how to sustain the intensity for longer periods of time.

But in the mean time, I'll just keep checking out Roscoe. I'm sure it will come.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Ideal Soprano Reeds

I've been playing RW reeds since 2008. So when Roberto asked me to become an endorser, it was great, because I was already playing them anyway. I have numerous credit card statements to prove it! And personally I can’t think of a better endorsement to have.

Endorsing mouthpieces and horns are good. But honestly, I don’t want several horns and mouthpieces. I’ve been playing the same horn for over 20 years and the same mouthpiece close to ten. It would have been longer, but my old mouthpiece fell on the floor and broke. Besides, having unlimited access to horns and mouthpieces would do me more harm than good. I would spend too much time blaming everything on my equipment.

Reeds on the other hand, you can never have too many of them. I might go through a box faster than a cowboy goes through a pack of Marlboros. Hey, if I could play a reed for twenty years, that would be amazing, not to mention cost effective--but back to reality.

I haven’t tried the RW reeds on the other saxes, but I know they’re ideal for the soprano. As you know, everything is magnified on the soprano. Saxophonist Dave Liebman offered some insightful reasons why, in his article The Soprano Saxophone: "A great portion of the soprano's range places it in that area of sound where the pitches are produced by very fast oscillations. (If the A below middle C is 440 cycles, doubling that number for the next A and again for high A above the staff gives you an idea of the speed of vibrations in the soprano range."

So when you have the sound producing such fast oscillations, it’s only natural that you need the micro-sizes that the RW reeds offer to give you just the right consistency and resonance needed throughout the entire range of the instrument.

When I used to play Vandorens--which are great reeds, too--I found they just didn’t give me the same flexibility and power of the RW reeds, especially when it came to playing multi-phonics and in the altissimo register. Until recently, I was playing the RW Soprano, 3 Medium, but came down in size to a RW Soprano, 3 Soft. It offered me a little more control, allowing me to play with less resistance. Back in the old days, I would have had to shave down my reeds. But the micro-sizes have made that practice a thing of the past.

If you ever find yourself on W. 46th Street, between 6th and Broadway, do yourself a favor and stop by Roberto’s Winds .

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Pre-Multiphonic Training: Part 2

A few months ago I submitted a post called “Pre-Multiphonic Training,” discussing an exercise developed by Ronald L. Caravan in his book Preliminary Exercises & Etudes In Contemporary Techniques For Saxophone that helps with sound, embouchure control and playing multi-phonics.

Attached are pages 2 and 3 of that chapter. When playing these exercises, you should pay close attention to the different dynamic levels. Successfully playing these tones, as it is when playing most multi-phonics, requires one to play with a very delicate airstream. We’re often taught to blow through the instrument full and forcefully. Which is applicable when playing more conventional notes and sounds. However, when playing multi-phonics and the pre-multiphonic exercises below, the airstream must be played the same delicacy and finesse with which a violinist uses his or her bow.

These exercises require a lot of abdominal support, just so that the notes don’t crack or distort. These notes are not pretty. So don't let this distract you. I wouldn’t use them as alternate fingerings when playing a lovely ballad. However, when paying something a little more experimental, they could be very effective.

Have fun!

Embracing Authentic Confidence, Beyond the Illusion of Perfection

My struggles with confidence has been a constant companion throughout my life's journey, with and without my horn. I certainly have my g...